Patriots' ground game a team effort
Recent emphasis on physical running attack pushes them in right direction
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots' coaches turn the page from one opponent to the next, a process that typically begins shortly after their players are dismissed from meetings and workouts on Monday afternoon, the first step is to identify what areas of the foe's game are strengths and which are weaknesses.
That's the root of being a game-plan team, where strategy can change dramatically from one week to the next: Find out where your opponent is weak and attack it; if there's an area where your opponent excels, avoid the buzz saw.
So when the Patriots flew home from a grounding 24-20 defeat to the Miami Dolphins in mid-December, the latest in a six-game stretch during which quarterback Tom Brady threw for more than 300 yards five times and had a 4-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, the task was to move on and prepare for the defending Super Bowl champions, their next opponent.
On paper, the matchup against the Baltimore Ravens suggested it was time for more of the same: ride the hot hand of Brady and avoid what was then the sixth-ranked rushing defense.
But as guard Logan Mankins said on Wednesday, football isn't played on paper, and the Patriots barreled through the Ravens for 142 rushing yards.
That performance kick-started a three-game trend of overwhelming and punishing opponents with the ground game. LeGarrette Blount has taken the lead role, scoring eight rushing touchdowns during the stretch and swallowing up yards between the tackles.
In that span, no team has rushed for more yards between the tackles per game than the Patriots. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Patriots have averaged 5.8 yards per interior rush (second in the league) and a league-best 200.3 interior yards per game.
The Patriots' offense has been at its best during this three-game spurt, averaging nearly 40 points per game.
"I believe that our team is the best when we are running the ball like that," Mankins said recently. "The more runs we get, I think the better we are and the better chance we have to win."
Although an admittedly small sample size, it's hard to argue with Mankins' assessment.
While part of this can be attributed to the fact that teams often run the football when playing with a lead, it's worth noting that the Patriots are 22-2 over the past two seasons in games in which they've rushed for more than 100 yards.
Blount Rushing Between The Tackles
|1st 14 Games||Past 3 Games|
|Yards PG||29.9||130.0 <<|
|Yds per rush||4.9||7.0|
|>> Best in NFL|
If one were to split the pie among those who deserve credit for the recent rushing resurgence, it would include the offensive line, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and, among others, Blount, a ferocious mix of speed and foot quickness.
"We've always seen it in practice -- the power and the mix of speed," tight end Michael Hoomanawanui said of Blount. "People underestimate that about him. I think they're not doing that so much anymore. He's just done a great job for us the last couple of weeks and hopefully he can keep that going."
But Blount isn't a new addition to the roster, nor are any of the other primary parts involved in the ground game.
The same offense that went through a five-game stretch (a part of the aforementioned Brady hot streak) without a rusher surpassing 58 yards in a single contest is now leaning on the ground game to carry the load against the best competition.
Fewest Yards Per Rush Allowed Inside Tackles -- Regular Season
|>> NFL average: 4.21|
So what's changed?
For Blount, it's been, as was urged to him by his head coach, lowering his pad level, which prevents would-be tacklers from wrapping him up with just a modest effort.
The 250-pounder has run with a lower center of gravity, narrowing the window for defenders to tackle him and increasing the force of each hit he delivers himself.
Schematically, the Patriots haven't hit the drawing board to dial up new plays. Rather, it's been a steady dose of what many would refer to as "old-school" formations and blocking schemes: two-back sets, with James Develin -- roundly lauded by his teammates and coaches for his toughness -- plowing ahead of Blount, Stevan Ridley and the rest of the stable of backs.
The Patriots run traps, lead isolation plays and power counters -- plays that rely on physicality from blockers and execution. It's not so much about dictating favorable matchups and trying to find a way to outnumber a defense; the approach is much simpler: Line 'em up and hit.
The Patriots overwhelmed the Indianapolis Colts this past Saturday using that strategy.
The payoff has been obvious: Nearly 40 points per game speaks for itself, and the running game works in tandem with the passing game.
The 53-yard, field-position flipping pass from Brady to Danny Amendola against the Colts off of play action was a direct result of successful runs by the Patriots earlier in the game. Safety LaRon Landry steamrolled toward the line of scrimmage as Brady faked to Blount, only to have Amendola streak past him without resistance.
The payoff also has been obvious in the red zone, an area the Patriots struggled with for much of the season when playing without Rob Gronkowski. The team has scored touchdowns on 9 of 13 red zone trips in the past three games, with seven of those scores coming on rushing plays.
The red zone had been an area of limitation for the Patriots due in part to their receivers struggling to get off of man coverage, something defenses rely on in the red zone with condensed space to run.
In that Miami game, the Patriots couldn't score on the game's final possession, with Amendola unable to secure a catch over a defender in the end zone.
Perhaps that drive served as a motivation to increase the reliance on a physical approach -- grounding and pounding into the end zone.
We'll never know for sure, but no matter the reason, the Patriots' rushing attack has come on like a freight train, giving this offense balance and a presence much different than the one that led the NFL in scoring last season.
While the core of the Patriots' offensive approach has included a game-plan philosophy to attack an opposing team's weakest area, the core of the organization under Bill Belichick also has been to identify its own players' strengths and maximize them.
How does that translate to Sunday's AFC Championship Game matchup against the Broncos? Denver gave up the sixth-fewest rushing yards per game during the regular season, compared to 27th against the pass. Conventional wisdom would seem to point to a pass-heavy game-plan for the Patriots, but at some point teams have to ditch that mindset and go with what's working. By that logic, don't be surprised if the Patriots try to establish the running game early to set the tempo of a physical 60 minutes of football.
With Brady leading the huddle, Mankins and the line carving the paths and Blount and company running with purpose, this offense has hit its stride with the stakes at their highest.